Prof. Rodrik is wrong

Happened to read this piece by Professor Dani Rodrik in ‘Project Syndicate’. MINT has carried it as well.

Let us start with what he gets right: The United States might have stolen IP from Britain. The problem then was that there were no international intellectual property regimes. They did not exist. Everyone stole from everyone. Germany stole from Britain too. Ask Ha-Joon Chang. That is what he documented in his book, ‘Kicking away the ladder’.

But, now, right or wrong, fair or unfair, we have international laws and countries voluntarily sign up to them, because they want the technology and hence, they sign up to complying with transfer restrictions to other nations.

Now that nations sign up to international agreements, they cannot go back and cite precedence from another period when no framework existed.

If they had no intention of complying and did not sign the agreements, then, it would have meant that they signed up to the philosophy of ‘might is right’. Then, it becomes a law of the jungle and survival of the fittest. There is no role for op.-eds. and economists. We can watch the slugfest.

Indeed, that is the conclusion that Prof. Rodrik’s arguments are leading us to. China is not claiming that it is not cheating nor is Prof. Rodrik claiming that China is not cheating. But, he is questioning the actions that the U.S. Government is taking. Where would that lead to? Only the jungle.

Prof. Rodrik has written often enough that economics rules and laws operate within the prevailing social and political contexts. Hence, to cite precedence from another era and another context must sound very unconvincing, even to him.

The context is indeed different now in another aspect too. Technology – beneficial and menacing – has advanced tremendously. There are chemical, biological and nuclear technologies that can cause tremendous damage. Hence, stealing them and propagating them to nations that do not have a record of responsible deployment (not just against the rest of the world but against their own people) is immoral and actually, they tantamount to crimes against humanity. These are not morally equivalent to and are far different from stealing technology for sewing machines during times when no intellectual property regime existed.

If one can hazard a guess as to why Prof. Rodrik wrote this piece, we get clues from his concluding lines. Prof. Rodrik writes that many liberal commentators question Trump’s methods but not his goals. He wanted to differentiate himself by criticisng both.

The other possibility – and all of us are susceptible to it at some point if not always – is that he has set up a goal for himself: “I cannot be in the same side as Trump is. So, let me see what I can do to come up with an argument to help me reach or stay in that position.

Then, one tends be a bit careless about the ‘logical landmines’ on the way. The goal is not to be where Trump is.

This piece falls well short of the analytical and logical rigour that one has come to expect of him.

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